As coronavirus sweeps the globe, the race for a vaccine is under way. A team at the University of Oxford claim they will have up to a million doses of a vaccine available by September should preliminary tests prove successful.
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In the ancient world where vaccinations and medications of such calibre were non-existent, authorities implemented questionable methods to prevent the spread of disease.
In Ancient Greek religion, the act of “pharmakos” was considered a foolproof way to curb disease.
A ritualistic ceremony, pharmakos was the practice of using humans as a sacrifice or a scapegoat.
The city state in Ancient Greece was viewed much like a body, with everything coming in monitored closely and defended against potential attack.
If a city was hit by famine or plague, like the body, it was viewed as needing to be purged or cleansed with blood or fire.
Much like with today’s coronavirus, the socially marginalised bore the brunt of such disease.
Hipponax, a sixth century BC poet, recorded in most detail the horrifying practice.
From his observations we know that often, two people were selected, male and female, to serve as representatives of each gender for the entire city.
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Present-day surveys of the ritual, using multiple sources through the ages, have concluded that those selected were usually prisoners, criminals, or perhaps a prisoner of war, a slave, a person with a disability, or a social outcast.
The plight of these peoples – the most socially marginalised – has been compared to the danger coronavirus poses to the homeless; with the homeless often not able to isolate, socially distance, wash their hands, among other precautions.
The most salient difference, however, is the way the ancient Greeks treated those socially marginalised peoples.
The chosen man and woman were kept and fed by the state for a short period.
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On the day of their departure they would be dressed in “holy garments” and adorned with sprigs; this appearing to be a lavish and almost ecstatic send-off.
After a procession through the city where the chosen people were chased, stoned, and beaten with twigs, they were driven from the city.
In some cases the pharmakoi victims were not only beaten and exiled, but also killed.
The second-century A.D. author Philostratus tells us that in one outbreak of plague in Ephesus, a beggar was stoned to death.
The ritual and subsequent expulsion of the pharmakoi was believed to have cleansed the city from the famine or plagues that afflicted it.
Some uncanny parallels can be drawn between the ritual and the present-day.
The most obvious: social distancing.
The most effective way of staying relatively safe from the coronavirus is by practicing social distancing.
Although the Greeks didn’t exactly have social distancing in mind, they effectively reduced the chance of further spread, albeit by archaic and draconian means.
It became such a popular means of purification and point of community activity that it was eventually absorbed into festivals.
Most notably, in Athens, on the first day of Thargelia, a festival of Apollo, men were brought out as if to be sacrificed as an expiation – a tradition that was continued for years.
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